Last week, the Chicago Sun Times reported that Tyson Foods purchased a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, the Southern California-based purveyor of meat analogs that strive to be similar to chicken and beef. The company earned praise for creating meat alternatives made from ingredients such as carrot fiber and pea flower. And its coconut oil and beet juice “Beyond Burger” is even on display in some butcher cases at Whole Foods. Neither Beyond Meat, which is privately owned, or Tyson disclosed the financial terms of the deal.
Tyson’s investment is, at a minimum, disconcerting to some animal welfare activists and Beyond Meat stakeholders. But as Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of the seven-year-old fake meat startup, explained: This new relationship between Tyson and Beyond Meat has far more benefits than one would assume. After all, a growing planet demands more protein; both companies can learn from one another; and a more fragmented market means more consumer choice and also the chance for new business.
The reality is that -- after decades of public awareness campaigns and concerns over public health, the environment and animal rights -- the global meat industry is responding in kind. The Soy Moratorium, founded a decade ago, helped halt the pace of deforestation in Brazil that resulted from lands being transformed into farms growing animal feed; more food companies such as McDonald’s are transitioning away from poultry containing antibiotics; and the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) is working with NGOs to reduce the meatpacking industry’s environmental impact by making it more efficient and sustainable.
Meatpacking companies and firms such as Beyond Meat, which really should be described as food technology companies, are wrong to dismiss each other or to view each other as competitors. Instead, they are complements. Tyson will gain in the long term from diversifying its portfolio. Beyond Meat will score more business opportunities by having closer access to Tyson’s body of knowledge as it seeks to improve its products by making them almost indistinguishable from animal meat in taste and appearance.
And in any event -- despite fears that a growing meat industry will result in unchecked sustainable development, especially in the case of beef -- the future does not have to be dystopian as food trends indicate otherwise. David Hughes, a professor and noted speaker on the international food industry, recently told a recent GRSB conference that beef will never be able to compete on price and scale with far cheaper aquaculture and poultry. Furthermore, the proliferation of more food options, from hot cases in supermarkets to fast casual restaurants, offer more consumer choice. As more people eat more of their meals alone, they are not looking to cook dinner: Rather, they are seeking a “solution” for that meal, no matter what the time of day may be. Hence, an opening for meatless products has hardly been exploited.
To that end, beef will become not a mass-marketed food; rather, it will be more of a niche food product. And as meat analogs become more price competitive and offer comparable taste and texture (arguably, many already are), more consumers will incorporate them into their diet. On that point, Brown points out this is not an “us versus them” debate: Consumers will decide based on reasons related to their health, wallet and values.
Tyson’s investment reveals that the meat industry will start following the path of other food and beverage companies. Honest Tea is now a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, with no changes to its bottled teas and juices. Stodgy Kellogg owns Kashi, which says it is still devoted to the organics movement. And Unilever will not change how Seventh Generation makes its plant-based cleaning products at the risk of losing customers.
In the end, there is no reason why meat companies cannot profit from selling meatless food products, which would be a win for consumer choice, the environment, health and, for many of us, our retirement portfolios.
Image credit: Beyond Meat
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.